Appointments in Quangoland

Photograph of Brittania statue, taken 13th Jun...

What would she do?

One of the great mysteries of the modern world is how to get appointed to the board of a quango.

I have also wondered whether the concerns about the effectiveness or not of quangos may lie in the criteria used to identify the types of people to run or govern quangos. To that end, would the public and political perceptions be different if there were greater confidence that quangos were both purposeful AND engaged the right people to sit on their boards and lead their management teams.

When I was doing work on revalidation of doctors (in the UK), following the tragic baby deaths scandal at an NHS hospital, I observed to medical colleagues that if they didn’t get their medical house in order they would be seen as unable to govern their profession and would lose their autonomy and control of the GMC: in which case, the chair of the General Medical Council would be lay chair, and they would be outnumbered by lay members. I observed that I might be the chair of the GMC since I knew a fair bit about what doctors do, which put the issue quite starkly.

The real issue is whether the criteria used to select candidates for quangos by appointing bodies fully engages the widest possible talent pool, or does it favour certain types of people, who in the end want to work with people like themselves, presumably in some respect professional quango-ites. Part of the challenge is that in many cases quangos should actually be putting themselves out of business. Other quangos should be driving reform and change. But the characteristics of people who get to sit on quango boards have to a great degree established their legitimacy, not as reformers, but as a ‘safe pair of hands’.  Radical, reforming, challenging individuals will never fit as quangos exude stability and bureaucratic purpose, not the instability that comes from reform and general disruption of the status quo.

Quangos could even be seen as evidence that the status quo is alive and well!  A quango focused on innovation should itself be innovative, it might instead suffer from the usual pressures to deliver performance metrics on attendees at workshops on innovation rather than evidence of innovative outcomes.  A quango on research would be disinclined to consider speculative more risky research proposals, as they must prove the value of taxpayers’ money. Quangos that invest in early stage high technology research spin-offs from research labs would need to demonstrate in some budgetary cycle that their investments were creating jobs, for instance, despite evidence that such start-ups might take 5 years before they would have any impact.  And so it goes.

In the meantime, taxpayers’ money is spent on people whose careers are simply to sit on quangos. And when do we have a discussion about whether the very criteria for public appointments to quangos are themselves part of the problem? Perhaps there’s a quango for that?

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